Fremont couple spends more than 2 years in Ukraine for Peace Corps

2010-06-22T11:00:00Z Fremont couple spends more than 2 years in Ukraine for Peace CorpsSpecial to the Tribune Fremont Tribune
June 22, 2010 11:00 am  • 

Anyone care for the adventure of a lifetime?

That pretty well sums up Fremonters Don and Karen Schneider's 27-month journey serving in the U.S. Peace Corps.

The two lived in Ukraine, visited five other countries during their service, and ended their travels with a 12-day train and airplane trip across Russia on their way home. The Schneiders returned to Fremont in early June.

With their backgrounds as an attorney (Don) and banker (Karen), they joined a growing number of older Americans joining Peace Corps to serve as business advisers. The goal is to get Americans with practical business experience into countries committed to developing a market economy. Most of these countries were formerly in the Soviet Union or within the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe.

The Schneiders were assigned to serve in Ukraine. They arrived in March 2008. For the first three months, the Schneiders lived with a host family in Chernigov, Ukraine, while undergoing intensive language, cultural and technical training. Their host family was Sergei and Galena Popov and their 10-year-old daughter, Nastia.

Most residents are ethnic Ukrainians, but about 35 percent are ethnic Russians. Plus, many Ukrainians still speak Russian because much of Ukraine was a part of Russia for 300 years before independence was gained in 1991.

"Russian is spoken, especially by older businessmen," Don said. "Since those were the people we would be working with, we were put into a Russian language group during our training in Chernigov."

After training ended, the Schneiders were assigned to the city of Vinnytsia, Ukraine, which has a population of more than 350,000. Vinnytsia is similar to Lincoln, in size and as a center of government and home to two nationally recognized universities.

Don was assigned to a small business development center and Karen to a youth development center. Don's organization assisted small- and medium-sized business owners in Vinnytsia and Vinnytska Oblast. He was a consultant and troubleshooter. Problems he dealt with ranged from helping business owners deal with government regulations, to promoting tourism and helping work out contracts for exports and imports.

Karen assisted her organization and a related organization in obtaining grants from East Partnership Fund (one of the Soros foundations); the Media Development Fund (U.S. Embassy); and the Special Project Assistance Fund (USAID, through the U.S. State Department). She also helped develop an English club, organize two youth rock music festivals and co-ordinate fund-raising to purchase medical equipment for the local animal shelter.

"The most enjoyable part of our service was Vinnytsia Language School," Karen said. "Don and I both taught English and business there two or three nights a week for two years."

"Vinnytsia Language School was dedicated to preparing high school juniors and seniors so they could enter a business university in Western Europe," Don said.

The Ukrainian educational system is based on the old Soviet model. Teachers lecture, students take notes, memorize and recite back. But the Schneiders drew on their own experiences, plus Internet resources and taught the beginnings of a business education. When they taught, all the students showed up, which wasn't necessarily true of other classes. All but one of those students went on to attend a university in the Netherlands.

Besides this, the Schneiders developed a friendship with an 83-year-old retired Soviet soldier, Nikolai, and his neighbor, Anya. During a conversation, the four realized that in 1958 Nikolai's brother was manning a Soviet tank in East Germany at the same time that Don's brother-in-law, Jan Ford, was manning an American tank in West Germany.

"Nikolai was truly astounded to realize that not only did he now have Americans living in his building, but even more amazing was that we had become his friends," Karen said.

"When we left two years later, we had tears and hugs aplenty when we had to say goodbye to Anya and Nikolai," Don said.

During their travels in Ukraine, the Schneiders visited five medieval castles, at least 30 beautifully decorated Orthodox churches, Adolf Hitler's secret underground bunker used during World War II, two extensive cave monasteries where monks lived their entire lives underground during the Middle Ages, the catacombs outside Odessa where partisans successfully fought off the Nazis during World War II, plus two trips to the Carpathian mountains. A more sobering part of their travels in Ukraine was seeing the many monuments and memorials they found honoring the Jews of each city or town murdered by the Nazis during the German occupation of Ukraine in World War II. Some 2 million Ukrainian Jews are believed to have been killed by the Nazis in towns across Ukraine.

The Schneiders also took a 12-day train and plane trip across Russia. They also visited the old city of Veliky Novgorod, with its fortress wall dating back to the 1100s, and Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, which was the site of one of the biggest battles of World War II.

"We were especially impressed by the war memorial at Volgograd," Don said, "including the 279-foot-tall Russian ‘Motherland' statue. Over 1,000,000 Russians died at Stalingrad, defending it from the Nazis, and the statue is one of the most famous in Russia."

The Schneiders are back in Fremont, where his law office has reopened.

"Peace Corps will always be very special to us, and it truly was the adventure of a lifetime," Don said. "We would not have missed this for the world."

This story was submitted by Don Schneider of Don Schneider Law Office in Fremont.

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